The Limit Does Exist: Understanding the Limitations Behind Unlimited Plans

May 20, 2021
Brenda Eisenschenk

In the modern world, travel-focused and mobile lifestyles are becoming just as common as an internet connection. But for people who do travel and/or live mobile, finding a good home internet replacement is not as easy as they might want.

Given the nature of mobile living, a home internet plan does not work as there is no permanent location to install the plan. Thus, unlimited cellular high-speed data plans would be the logical way to turn. However, these direct plans are designed by the carriers to be used for temporary travel away from your permanent workspaces (nowadays, it could be your home or office), not as a replacement for your permanent plan.

Even though these plans are advertised as unlimited data plans, they are not truly “unlimited”. This is by design; having a truly unlimited high-speed data plan would replace any need for a permanent internet for your home or office. Because of this, for those who need a mobile internet connection, this challenge to find a good “unlimited” plan can be overwhelming.

Understanding the Limit in Unlimited

Luckily, we know a thing or two about unlimited plans, and we are here to share that knowledge with you. While we can all agree that calling something “unlimited” should mean that it really is unlimited, service providers have put their own meaning to the word. Basically, their “unlimited” means there will be no overage charges for your amount of service usage. And, these plans sometimes have a catch in order to restrict consumers from using a data plan as a full replacement for their home or office internet.

Which, if we think back to those of us who live a mobile or travel-focused lifestyle, leaves them searching for exactly that: a data plan as a full replacement.

Let us review what we know so far about “unlimited” plans.

Types of Internet S L O W I N G

There are a couple ways your internet could be intentionally slowed on a high-speed cellular data plan. The first is throttling and the second is network management, which have similar effects on your internet speed, but work in different ways.

When a carrier is throttling your speed:

They are always interfering with your speed and slowing it down. Throttling can happen for an entire month, after you’ve reached a certain threshold of data usage, or for specific uses or functions.

If the plan has throttle points, they are usually slowed to a certain speed after reaching a particular limit threshold. The speed might then be limited to ‘2G Speeds’ (128-256 kbps) or ‘3G Speeds’ (500-600 kbps). Even when these names are used to label the speeds, it is important to mention that the carriers are not actually switching your usage to 3G towers, it is just saying the speed is now akin to that of 3G.

When a carrier is using network management:

They are deprioritizing certain types of traffic on the network over other types of data. Most of the time, cellular plans have a threshold that regular, normal-priority data usage can reach before the selective prioritization (“network management”) starts. This threshold varies from 22-100GB of usage in a month, and any data usage over this threshold is then deprioritized.

When the data is being managed, and the cellular tower being used is congested with usage, data speeds might be slowed down – with no particular speed being set. This slowing will end once the tower is no longer congested, resuming full speed for the data plan. During the congestion, the tower is selecting higher-priority data and slowing others whose data is of less priority, thus using network management. Depending on the tower and the users surrounding it, this network management might be unnoticeable, especially if the congestion is low in that area. But if the tower is in a highly congested area, the network managed data can be very noticeably slowed.

A good way to think of this is like a fast pass lane at a theme park. When attendance in the park is low or it is a slow day, the regular wait time is not much different from the VIP pass line because there are fewer people. But on a busy day or a day with high attendance, those with higher priority (VIP fast passes) get to the front of the line quickest compared to those in the regular waiting line. Those with VIP passes are higher priority than the ones in the regular wait line, but those are only available if you “qualify” as higher priority. But, this only matters during busy times – otherwise the wait time is pretty similar between high priority and regular priority.

Other Ways to Get Online

With most carriers, a direct unlimited smartphone or tablet plan can include a hotspot capability, but this is included with the assumption you already have a permanent internet carrier for your home or office needs. This assumption is made and idealized because carriers do not want consumers using hotspot plans to replace permanent internet plans. But, if we think back again to those who live a mobile or travel-focused lifestyle, a permanent hotspot capability plan is just what they need.

Cellular data is often the primary source of connection for mobile living or travel-focused folks, particularly through the use of a mobile hotspot. These hotspots allow phones, laptops, streaming devices, and any other device with internet connectivity to access the internet through a device with a hotspot data plan.

But what are the different types of hotspot connectivity? And what are its restrictions?

The first is one we have already been talking about: mobile hotspots. A personal mobile hotspot uses the cellular connection from a smartphone or tablet as the modem for other laptops, tablets, phones, or other streaming devices to get connected online. A smartphone or tablet would allow this connectivity through creating a mobile WiFi hotspot that is open for other devices to use.

The second form of this is tethering. Tethering allows the same connectivity as a mobile hotspot but requires a USB cable for connection. The cable would attach directly to the phone/tablet to a computer or router.

The main similarity with these is how the carriers treat them: they are both categorized in terms of how the data is used. For many smartphone and tablet plans, their “unlimited” plans are, as you can probably guess, actually limited. This limit is placed on the data usage and restricts how much data can be allotted for hot spot use at high speeds before being slowed way down to crawling speeds. And some plans do not have any inclusion of hotspot data at high speeds or allow hotspot use at all. Furthermore, if a particular carrier does offer a device specifically for hotspot usage (like a MiFi or similar routing device), there may be a restriction on that line, even if it is an unlimited data plan.

Here’s the bottom line – if you regularly use more data than the highest ‘limited’ allowance on your plan then having an unlimited play would give you a safety net, and likely sav you some money. My caution is to read the fine print, make sure you understand of tethering and what rules apply, as well as if any fair usage clauses apply. Be informed so you are surprised.

We are here to help navigate “All Lanes” of wireless. If you have a question, we can most likely help. If not, we will get you an answer. We want a chance to EARN your business. Please contact us for all your wireless needs.

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